Tilting at Windmills: The Heinous Growth of Variants

Thu, September 13th, 2012 at 8:58pm PDT | Updated: September 15th, 2012 at 4:15am

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

Don't Shit Where You Eat

A couple of weeks ago there was a bit of a kerfuffle in a private retailer bulletin boards over a variant edition of a comic book. One group of retailers accused another group of retailers of taking illegal and/or unethical actions with regards to the creation of this variant. More than that is, largely, a waste of your time, and would be giving attention to some fairly absurd conspiracy theories, but at the time I was directly asked about what I thought of the situation and I made a statement that I thought maybe I should share; and since I told Rich Johnston that he could not run it since I would use it for a "Tilting," well, here you go:

What I have to say about the "situation" is that people who want to stir the pot just for the sake of stirring the pot should probably find a more productive hobby. And be deeply deeply embarrassed that they've lost their very humanity in this process.

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think, assume, believe or imagine that absolutely anything illegal in any way shape or form went down based upon the forthright testimony that's in this very thread.... and if I was a mod, that's exactly where I would lock this thread, as a result. Any assertion as to identity or motivation past what participants have posted here is complete nonsense, and should be shunned as such.

I personally, as an individual with an individual opinion, have no respect whatsoever for anyone, anywhere, who charges, under any circumstances whatsoever, more than cover price for any comic that is less than 30 days old. We shouldn't shit where we eat.

Clearly some people don't understand that last bit. And those people should also be deeply deeply embarrassed for their actions. Not just from now, but for yesterday and tomorrow both.

And now that 99% of the people who read this feel I'm talking about them... well, yes, actually, I am. Think about the providence of your actions you greedy, horrible people.

This started a few fights, as you might imagine.

I'm not a fan of variant covers, you see: of the way they create opportunities for greed, or the way they deform sales patterns, sending incorrect messages about how and why comics sell. I don't like the ways in which they've actually changed publisher behavior, and I certainly don't like the lies, or even "sins of omission," that they encourage in salesmanship at the store level. I loathe the way they inflate our database, making it harder to do our actual job of selling comics to people by making them more time consuming to order, by making it more difficult to find items on a search, by creating extra hours of purely unnecessary work for me each and every month. I don't like the way they create literal waves of physical revulsion in my body every time I have to receive or order virtually every comic book from Boom, or Dynamite, or IDW, where those publishers are forcing me to get variant covers that I not only affirmatively don't want, but that I believe actually harm sales by creating customer confusion and messy display options. I don't like the mess they make of the racks, or the consumer confusion they engender.

I really don't like multiple, variant comics.

Barring some silliness with different barcodes, or the kind of "news stand/Direct Market edition" split (Like, say, "Man of Steel" #1 had), the first impactful variant that I can think of in the modern market is 1989's "Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight" #1. You have to think back to what the world was like then -- it wasn't like today where there are nine different Batman comics on the market at any given moment, there was only "Batman" and "Detective" then (No, "Batman Family" doesn't count, that was about Robin and Batgirl, not Batman himself.) -- "LDK" was, therefore, the first new solo Batman comic book in fifty years, and the market got a little excited.

How excited? Well, the story goes that then VP of Marketing, Bruce Bristow, saw the numbers and got scared that there wasn't any way the market could "possibly" absorb that number of copies. So, it was decided, after the orders were in, that DC would add four different outer covers to the books (literally just different colored outer covers that didn't even feature art or anything). And what did the consumers do? Yeah, a lot of them took that as the invitation to buy four copies.

That did it, within a year Marvel whipped out multiple cover DM variants for Todd McFarlane's "Spider-Man" #1, and it set a modern sales record (at the time, 2.5 million copies), and we were off to the races.

Since then, things have gotten out of hand. How out of hand? Well, I counted up all of the comics being offered to me by the "Premier" publishers (Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, IDW) to sell in October of 2012, and a full forty percent of them had at least one variant. Variant covers have taken over the comics industry like a particularly pestilent strain of kudzu.


Who is responsible for this heinous growth? Well, the problem is that it is everyone; we're all complicit.

On the retailer side, I frequently hear statements like "Incentive variants allow me the ability to find the ceiling on books that I would have otherwise had to guess lower on." Now it might be one thing if this kind of statement was coming from newbie retailers, or stores that otherwise didn't understand how to properly order comics, but it's largely coming from well-established stores with large purchasing budgets who have been in business for decades. You seriously expect me to believe that these stores can't properly gauge their customer bases' desire for most works with a pretty high level of accuracy? Because, I got to tell you, as a working retailer, if you don't have that basic skill, you really can't stay in business very long. It is, in fact, the key skill in running a non-returnable purchasing decision.

In fact, I'll go absolutely the other way: I strongly suspect that the total number of unsold comics purchased because "They're effectively free, once I sell this variant" is statistically likely to be significantly greater than the number of copies that were sold because retailers had more room to find the sales ceiling. Why do I believe this? Because of the actions of the greater market as revealed by the monthly sales charts.

What do these sales charts show? That in almost every single circumstance a comic goes from having a 1:10 variant, to not having one, orders immediately drop by around 8% -- almost exactly what the 1:10 variant adds to sales in the first place (as Diamond combines the parent title and the variants when they report orders).

Conversely, I think the tops of the charts disproves any theory that the bulk of retailers reach the sales ceiling for comics, as a result of variants -- a successful title like Marvel's "Avengers Vs. X-Men" #1 has gone through what I believe is now eight printings, despite having a soul-crushing number of variants from the start and on every issue. If variants are a "ceiling-finding tool", then they are one that clearly doesn't work well at all.

(In fact, one of the reasons that we have eight printings of "AvX" #1 is that there's a significant number of retailers who are bringing in more copies of each printing just for customers who want to have "complete" collections. They can generate a couple of thousand more unit sales with each printing that way.)

I find the entire idea of "finding the ceiling" to be preposterous, anyway -- flipping the order form to a random page, and finding the first variant there showed me a 1:10 for "American Vampire" #22. Find me the retailer who doesn't know how to order the 22nd issue of a monthly ongoing comic book, and you've found the retailer who should no longer be in business, because they don't understand how to be in business.

Variant covers are a pestilence -- the only reason that DC is doing that variant on "AV" #22 is because they're trying to get you to buy more copies than you have a natural market for. Too many retailers will blindly mark off the line for the variant edition simply because it is there, and publishers get that 7-9% bump just from having that 1:10 due to this. This is gross and manipulative of the market, and I think it is the most terrifying indictment of the modern comics market that this is SOP at the major publishers, rather than them putting the same resources into doing things that might actually grow the market to new customers.

I totally appreciate that many retailers like variants, but let's at least be honest about it and admit that it's actually because they like selling a comic that cost them $1.50 for a crisp $20 bill.


"Well, that's capitalism!" someone is going to bluster; "People should be able to make money in whatever legal way they can!"

No.

People should be free to make money in whatever ethical way they can. Laws can never keep up with the devious minds of greedy humans. The financial meltdown in high finance that plunged most working Americans into recession these last four years was mostly comprised of legal actions, and where people did illegal stuff, it was because there was so much legal-but-unethical stuff going down that people weren't able to, I guess, tell the difference between right and wrong.

But there are reasons that markets need controls -- and that's because, unchecked, all markets eventually tend towards irrational exuberance. The thing is, we in comics should really know better -- we've been through this again and again over the decades. Are we incapable of learning from our past mistakes?

I often think we are, because it isn't like I haven't been talking about this subject since the very first time I put pen to paper on "Industry topics." (Don't click that link, I was really an appallingly bad writer back then) (Then?) But, even all of these years later, the core issue is still the same: it is a moral failing, a pure degradation of the human spirit, to rook the guileless for material that you know is ultimately worthless.

What's that? Yes, variant covers are ultimately worthless. Past the first quarter on sale (and usually the first week or two at that), there's seldom any demand of any significance for the overwhelming majority variant covers. Even very "rare" ones. And retailers know this, because we're the primary people buying and selling them.

The other thing you hear all of the time from retailers trying desperately to justify their moral thuggishness is "Well, if I refuse to take their money, then those customers will just go shop elsewhere, putting me out of business!" And I neither believe that, nor believe that such customers are ultimately so incredibly important to the bottom line -- I'm coming up on my 24th year in business, and we've always and consistently had an anti-speculation position and policy in place, and if it's done the slightest thing to harm my business or to impede the free flow of commerce, I can't even begin to detect it.

Certainly what I've found over the decades is that the overwhelming majority of customers only care about "hot" comics, variant covers, or speculation, if you promote that as your store's value to those customers. In a natural state, I don't think that most customers care in the slightest about multiple covers, of collecting for monetary value, or any of that -- in the absence of racking them, the vast majority of customers wouldn't even be aware of variant covers in the first place. Why would they be?

Because here's the thing, as a general statement (though, of course, I'm sure we can find some exceptions), no one "wants" a variant in the sense of "I want the next person to walk past my vision to be a pretty, smiling girl" -- they want it generally because they've been programmed to do so by your retail environment, or that they're OCD and "can't help themselves." By this I mean, if the magical fairy god of moral justice waved its wand tomorrow and said "No! More! Variants!", I don't believe that any customer would stop enjoying their hobby, would stop buying comics, or would in any way, shape or form feel a "Variant-sized hole" in their lives.

Variants are a disease. What was once kinda cool as a curiosity has become a raging plague upon the body of the Direct Market, encouraging retailers to buy more "normal" product than they actually can sell in the hope of a "big" (or at least even) payout on the variant. This distorts the sales charts, this sends false messages about what people want to buy and how, and that distorts the very products that are actually produced because the metrics are all wrong. This is all the "retailer's fault."


Of course, the publishers are to blame as well.

In a way, I guess you can't blame them, sort of -- who wants to turn down a 7-9% bump just from adding another cover? But the problem is that the total number of people buying periodical comics appears to be drastically down from a decade before, which is down from the decade before that, which is down from the decade before that, and I, for one, don't think there's any reason to not think that at least some of the reason for that is the increasing focus on the manufactured collectible of the variant cover.

I counted (manually) everything from the five "Premier" (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image, IDW) publishers on the October 2012-shipping order form, and I came up with 264 individual titles of comic books (i.e. the 12 covers on "Uncanny Avengers" count as just "1" comic) being solicited. How many of those have a variant cover of some kind? A staggering 102. That's almost 40%!

But it gets worse. Because lots of comics have more than one variant, it took an unbelievable four hundred and nineteen lines to solicit those 264 comics. And, understand, that's just for five publishers -- it doesn't even consider companies that are really considered variant-heavy like Avatar, BOOM! or Dynamite.

Man, talk about wasting time and effort, of creating confusion within databases, and more things to unnecessarily track to no real positive end. It costs real costs in time, money, employee hours to produce and market, to order and track, to pick and rack, to ship and manage all of those variant covers -- and just how are we better off for all of that? Just exactly how does this bring in new customers? Or does it end up chasing readers from the hobby when they're inundated with a bunch of overpriced nonsense that doesn't increase their true enjoyment of the entertainment package one iota?

The problem is that it deforms publishing and weakens our understanding of the actual size and shape of our market. It creates artificial expectations of how and why and, really, what is "a marketing plan," and, in the end, every variant that comes out weakens the market a little more for the ones that come after it.

On the smaller publisher end, I think the path is even more insidious. We've even got a publisher (BOOM!) who now labels the "real" (non-"collectible") version of his comics as "Main Covers" with an "s" there at the end. Gross! I love a lot of what BOOM! publishes, and I really like owner Ross Richie personally, but ordering their comics for sale each month? My soul dies a little bit every time I have to wade through their section of the order form.

The same goes for Avatar and Dynamite and IDW. And, increasingly, Marvel and DC...

And if you ask Ross, or other publishers in the same boat as him, why in God's name they engage in the Franklin Mint-ing of an artistic medium that they truly love, of why they're actually debasing the thing they are the most passionate about in the name of Mammon, of greed and foolishness, they'll tell you, quite earnestly, that many of the largest retailers have indicated that they'll cut their orders by half or more if there are not 50/50 variant covers (or 50/25/25, or whatever other permutation you can think of) on every launch. And, thus, the publisher's business plan effectively becomes "We hope enough people will buy two (or more) copies of our comic."

And we wonder why the market seems shaky?

Meanwhile, in my corner of the world, those 50/50 (or whatever) covers make my racks messier, creates customer confusion, and therefore, I firmly believe, ends up yielding less copies sold for everyone.

Further, all of those variant covers create more work for me, as a retailer. Those 419 lines to solicit 264 titles? Those stay in my database forever. There's no easy or trivial way to get rid of them that doesn't simply cause more busy-work. And it means, ten years from now, if I'm trying to ping the database on a common term like "Batman," I have to wade through the four different entries for each issue this past year. 2-400% expansions of search results is seldom a positive goal.

This is all the publisher's fault.


Well, except, really, it is the consumer's fault, isn't it?

"If people didn't want them, they wouldn't produce it!"

But does that make it right? I mean, plenty of people want plenty of things that aren't any good for themselves or for society -- and as a society we limit (or at least try to) access to these things because they aren't good for you. Some people want heroin, and some people want armor-piercing bullets, but we don't pretend that these are things that are good for people.

Yes, comics are different in that they obviously aren't doing direct harm to people (except, y'know, paper cuts or something) -- but it seems equally clear to me that they harm the greater marketplace in a whole myriad of ways.

But it also seems entirely clear that unless you, the consumer, stop buying the things, the ethical midgets will continue to happily fleece you like sheep.

Look, I really do understand the why of it: it isn't like I'm not sometimes one of you as well -- when I collect something, there's that little buzz from knowing you have a cool collection, and an even bigger one from having a "complete" collection. I get that, I really and truly do.

But I also get that we are, in fact, thinking and reasoning people, and that we should be able to distinguish the difference between collecting things because we truly enjoy and admire the subject of our collecting, and collecting things that are solely being manufactured because they know you collect things. The first is a virtue; the second is being a sucker.

So, let's be real here: you're usually being ripped off if you pay more than cover price for new comics in the first month. There are, very occasionally, legitimately "hot" comics where the real demand radically outstrips real supply, and the short-term cost rises as a function of the legitimate market -- but these are truly few and far between in the modern comics industry because virtually no publisher isn't instantly going back to press to meet any demand they possibly can. And most people (honestly) don't give a damn what printing they have, they simply want to be entertained.

Are you dumb? I mean, I'm hoping you're not, but let's talk the truth here: the retailer doesn't pay any more for any variant cover than they do for the regular version. The comic has a $2.99 cover price? Your retailer is paying something on the order of $1.50 for it. The 1:10 they're charging $15 for? They paid about $1.50 for it. Oh, the 1:200 they're charging $200 for? Yes, they paid about $1.50.

Now, if you want to pay a 1000% markup, that's clearly your own business, but I have to ask you: what's the liquidity of your investment? How easy would it be for you to sell back your copy if you needed to? Because, of course, few retailers would even pay you back even a quarter of what you just paid for that variant if you came back in 30 days, let alone a year.

Ultimately, publishers produce these things because you buy them -- if you were to stop, if you were to collectively say, "No, I'm no longer willing to be ripped off!", the entire process would go away overnight.

So, it's all the consumers fault.


There, so you see that it is actually everyone's fault -- publisher, retailer, consumer.

Actually, you know whose fault it probably isn't? The distributor's fault.

I mean, distribution is hard enough to make money from on those thin margins, anyway, and all of the cost-of-labor is front-loaded into the very first copy packed and picked. It doesn't help any distributor to have 40% of the items they're distributing be primarily single- and double-copy pulls that don't have a larger cover price and that are disproportionately susceptible to damages.

So I don't blame distribution.

But the rest of you? Oh yes, this is your fault.

Here's the thing, though: I think this could all go away within months if only the retailers would look deeply at their actions, and how any slender benefit they might gain isn't worth all of the business they've chased off over the years. If you consumers would firmly plant a flag and declare "No, actually, I'm not OK with you making 1000%+ markup on a new item," boom, the whole thing would collapse overnight.

Look: anyone can do whatever they like, of course, but it is my firm, and unshakable belief built over four different decades of retailing comics that those people who choose to sell any new comic for more than cover price, in any circumstance (well, OK, maybe not if there's a charity involved, when I think about it...) are lowdown moral reprobates, and greedy, horrible people. I have given strong (I think) arguments as to exactly why I think this is, and for the concrete harm that it does to the marketplace, and we can watch how the market has changed since the '80s to show that, yes, most of the concerns I've expressed have sharply come true. And in the 23 years I've been saying this, crazy-eyed, in front of my peers, I do not believe that anyone has ever successfully won even an inch of territory on the "pro" variant side except for "who are you to tell me...?"

Me? I am no one to tell you.

But if you're a retailer, and you feel even a scintilla of guilt or shame over my personal belief that you're disgusting pieces of filth for rooking the guileless, then you really should look more carefully at your actions, and the ramifications that they actually have.

I like to believe that I have been a consistent moral voice on this issue, and that thus I have the moral high ground, but maybe not. Maybe there's not even such a thing, I don't know -- I'm a comics retailer, not a Philosopher King. Either way, if you don't ascribe to my morality on this topic, then what could you possibly care what I think?

The only reason any retailer is going to argue with me on this subject, I think, is because they don't want me to think that they're scum on this topic. Well, the reality is I am going to think that, just as I always have thought that, and always will think that. If anything, my belief has gotten nothing but stronger over the years because we can witness just how comics has changed (in my opinion: for the worse) over the decades because of this moral leprosy.

This is the simplest possible lesson that our market can finally learn -- and it is the base lesson that has nearly destroyed the very market itself on no less than two different occasions within my lifetime, and that, even today, chips away at the confidence of the readership every week, every month that passes. We are smarter than that, we are better than that, and I really wish that the market would finally realize this and grow up to have moral relationships with a customer base that, in too many ways, simply doesn't know any better.

I think we can build a better and more ethical future, I really do, and the first step is just not to take the laziest, greediest of all possible courses of action.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is one of the founders of , the Comics Professional Retailer Organization (even if this column and every other one is purely and entirely his individual viewpoint as an individual retailer!) Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here.

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, variant covers

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